A 21st century exorcist

Martin Shaw is back on TV – but how will he fare against an adversary with supernatural power?

William Friedkin's 1973 film The Exorcist set the bar impossibly high for subsequent horror directors. Often parodied, never bettered, Linda Blair's head-turning projectile vomiting – not to mention her character's enterprising use of a crucifix for a sex toy – have led others to the painful realisation that they are only ever going to be trapped in slavish imitation of this ground-breaking hardcore horror classic.

You may be forgiven, then, for hearing demonic cackling at the news that BBC1 has made a prime-time drama series in which the central character is a Vatican exorcist. Our man with the rosary is to be played by Martin Shaw – the former Professionals beefcake turned crusading barrister Judge John Deed. But even more eye-catching is that for Shaw, Apparitions is not just another acting gig – the six-part series is his brainchild. Furthermore, it's one he hopes will inject some "positivity" into our lives. Scary stuff indeed.

"I had the idea and thank God the BBC went along with it," he says, without irony. "It came out of what is now 45 years in the business and my sense of what ought to be done and what was missing. I thought there was too much law, too many cops and too much medicine, so let's do something else'.

A priest, though, and one without a romantic backstory. This isn't going to be The Thorn Birds. "No it isn't. We definitely didn't want that. But it has to be dramatic and at the same time I wanted to see if there was a way of putting across a message of positivity. It coalesced into the idea of a priest because that would give a reason for positivity, for faith, for goodness...."

All of which might suggest that Shaw has quietly turned into the slightly crackers lovechild of Mary Whitehouse and Cliff Richard, but he seemed perfectly sane when I met him. It's just that he feels that most drama these days is a "bit of a downer".

"Apparitions evolved out of wanting to do something different and something positive," he says. "Then it was just a question of handing it over to Joe Ahearne, who is a national treasure as far as I am concerned, and it is unbelievable what he has done."

That could be the masterstroke. Ahearne, who combines credits as both writer and director on Apparitions, cut his teeth on This Life, BBC2's fondly remembered (until an ill-advised belated return) Nineties saga of young urban professionals. His first solo credit, Ultraviolet, became something of a cult item with its tale of modern vampires, and more recently Ahearne has found a natural home in the creative hot house of Doctor Who.

"The original idea for Apparitions was of a priest who is working to promote candidates for sainthood," says Ahearne. "I discovered in research that the issues in exorcism and possession were much more exciting than the usual horror approach to them. I loved the idea that extreme sanctity and extreme evil were interwoven."

The opening episode begins strikingly with the exorcism of Mother Teresa on her deathbed in Calcutta. "It's true. Mother Teresa was exorcised before she died in 1997, and I don't think that's as unusual as it sounds," says Shaw. "Because the Catholic church would say – and it makes sense to me – that the more holy somebody is the more likely they are to come under attack from the Devil."

Shaw plays Father Jacob, whose day job is promoting candidates for sainthood, but who's also a dab hand at driving out demons. The actor says exorcisms are more common than most people believe: "While we were filming, someone brought in a newspaper cutting reporting that Pope Benedict was asking for there to be an exorcist in every parish; clearly he feels it's necessary."

Research was scrupulous, he says. "All the ecclesiastical processes are shown. We had a Roman Catholic priest with us at all times and I said to the priest, 'If at any time you're unhappy with anything, just come and tell me.' But we never had that remark at all."

I bet they didn't. For all its explicit, post-watershed storytelling, Apparitions could well go out instead of Songs of Praise. Not only is it gripping drama, it's terrific Christian propaganda. What may be more shocking for some viewers than the demonic business with vomit, bleeding eyeballs and the Tourette's-style obscenities, is how seriously the drama takes religion. Never mind upsetting Catholics, Apparitions could well end up offending atheists.

A "devout atheist" himself, Ahearne says "the inspiration for the series comes from the Catholic Church – its theology and beliefs. Because many of those beliefs are out of place in a secular society like Britain, this creates great conflict which is the engine for great drama.

"I have a new shelf of literature at home relating to miracle investigation, histories of the saints, exorcism and the nature of evil, but I also have books from the current wave of atheist writers denouncing religion as poison." And in Apparitions it's the demons who get to paraphrase Richard Dawkins.

Martin Shaw admits to a more ecumenical sort of belief than his character. "I'm not a Christian, but I believe in God and I believe in spirituality." And exorcism isn't a completely exotic idea, he says, in a society full of new-age remedies. "I think it depends on what names you apply to something. I mean, I don't know whether you've been to an alternative therapist or a cranial osteopath and reflexologists and so on. Sometimes, particularly with the more subtle forms of osteopathy, they're not even touching you. Strip the osteopath naked and put a bone through his nose and you'd say he was a witch doctor. "The stuff the Catholic church does is labelled exorcism, but I've had a Buddhist priest bless my house and it was just different words."

Dabbling in the occult can spook a man, but Shaw says nothing untoward occurred to him during the shoot. And Ahearne says that although he bought a crucifix in Rome, which he still wears, "Some actors had unnerving stories to tell during the shoot, but not me. My unfaith remains unshaken. I need big miracles to make me believe."

What is clear is that Apparitions has all the potential to be laughable, sub-Dennis Wheatley-style hokum. What makes it seriously entertaining hokum (or realist drama if you believe in demonic possession) is the combination of Shaw's screen presence – imagine Robson Green in the role and shudder – and Ahearne's smart and modern script. And to enjoy the show it's no more necessary to believe in God than it's necessary to believe in aliens to watch The X-Files or vampires to enjoy Buffy (or Ahearne's Ultraviolet).

What is equally impressive is that the series eschews a knowing irony; it's played dead straight. There's an almost subliminal one-shot homage to Max von Sydow in The Exorcist, but that is all. Is Shaw lining up a return series? "That is our hope, and the BBC have optioned one. But whether it goes forward is in the hands of the viewing public, the hierarchy at the BBC, and God." The hierarchy at the BBC probably wouldn't disagree with that pecking order.



'Apparitions' begins on BBC1 in mid-November

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project